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Sheriff's spokesman: 'This is going to be a criminal investigation'
EAST BREMERTON — An autopsy will be conducted on Aug. 8 to confirm what many authorities say they know: That the body found in a wooded area off Highway 303 is that of 6-year-old girl reported missing last weekend.
Cause and manner of death will be determined by the autopsy. But at an afternoon press conference Aug. 7 at Crossroads Neighborhood Church, Sheriff’s spokesman Deputy Scott Wilson said, “Make no mistake — this is going to be a criminal investigation. There’s no doubt about that. She did not just go off by herself and fall and die.”
Authorities believe the body is that of Jenise Paulette Wright, the subject of a search that swelled to as many as 375 people since her parents reported her missing late Aug. 3.
The body was found near the Steele Creek Mobile Home Park, where the girl lived with her family. Wilson said investigators are narrowing down on a suspect, but “we don’t have one at this time.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Frank Montoya Jr. said K-9 units “played an essential role” in finding the body. “It is tragic. We recovered a body of a girl. That touched us deeply, touched us greatly.”
Wilson could not confirm that the area where the body was found had been canvassed earlier.
Investigators are still putting together a timeline of Jenise’s movements on Aug. 3, and asked that anyone with information call the FBI tip line — 1-800-CALL-FBI — or call 911.
Community members have organized a public vigil on Aug. 8, 6 p.m., at Crossroads Neighborhood Church, 7555 Old Military Road NE, Bremerton.
Jenise was last seen by her parents in her bed around 10 p.m. Aug. 2. Her parents, after scouring the mobile home park for more than an hour the following night, called authorities at 9:55 p.m. They hadn’t seen the girl all day Aug. 3, but told authorities it was not uncommon for her to wander the neighborhood and check in every few hours.
Mary Pelnar, 14, who lives with her mom just around the corner from Jenise’s house, said she thinks of herself as a big sister to the little girl.
“No day is complete without seeing her or hearing her voice,” she said, noting that she has spent nights in the Wright home.
Pelnar said she was especially worried about Jenise because the little girl is so gregarious.
“She’s a really sweet kid,” she said. “She can get on your nerves, but we love her that way. She’s really friendly. That’s what really concerns me. I don’t know if she would know how to tell someone, ‘No, I don’t want to get in a car with you,’ if they offered to take her to get ice cream or something like that.”
Pelnar also talked about how the kids in the community stick together and look out for one another.
“We all love each other like a family,” she said. “We don’t leave anybody behind and [we] travel everywhere in packs. We normally wouldn’t let anyone go home alone, so this is odd. We normally wouldn’t do anything like that.”
For a time, the search expanded outward from the park in all directions, and rescue crews used specialized FBI dogs to help canvass the surrounding areas, Wilson said. Sex offenders and transients in the vicinity were interviewed throughout the week by authorities. A Homeland Security helicopter circled the area for a time.
“We consider her a daughter of the park, a daughter of East Bremerton,” Wilson said. “She was such a very outgoing and vivacious little girl who would make friends with anybody in the park.”
Reports from neighbors put the girl’s last known appearance in the park between noon and 4 p.m. Aug. 3. She was possibly wearing jeans, a pink T-shirt and flip flops or no shoes.
The girl’s home has been searched twice by a Washington State Crime Scene Response Team and an FBI evidence team.
The girl’s parents each took separate lie-detector tests, but the results have not be released. Authorities said the parents have been “fully cooperative.” Two of Jenise’s siblings, an 8-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, were removed from the home on Aug. 4 by Child Protective Services, but authorities would not elaborate about why. They are reportedly staying with older relatives.
Neighbors were questioned and homes searched, including vacant ones, Wilson said. By Aug. 5, investigators turned their attention fully on the mobile home park. There were barricades and an increased police presence at the entrance of the park and vehicles were being searched. Residents of the park continued to be interviewed and have officers enter their homes.
“The community support, I’ve never seen this,” Wilson said of the amount of support from community members, including neighbors.
— With reporting by Kevan Moore and Seraine Page of the Bremerton Patriot and Central Kitsap Reporter